Is the Wedding Ring a Symbol of Oppression?

photo of vintage old newspaper article with woman's wedding band picture

I went to a good friend’s wedding last Sunday. Besides the fact that I fell ass over teakettle down a staircase (with a dress on … and yes, it flew up), I had a great time. I teared up at the ceremony (as I always do at weddings, graduations, and any event with any prospect of sentimentality), and when my friend came back to work mid-week, the ring on his finger was almost like a beacon.

I wore a wedding ring for seven years, and I took the vows that I made in its name very seriously. The fact that the little circle of gold is now in a plastic baggie at the bottom of my purse because I don’t know what the hell else to do with it holds a certain irony, I suppose.

Anyway, I’d never really thought a lot about the history of the wedding ring, but it turns out that it’s actually incredibly interesting—and kind of scary, too, when you consider that guys like Samuel Johnson referred to it as “a circular instrument placed upon the noses of hogs and the fingers of women to restrain them and bring them into subjection.”

The predecessors to the wedding ring had their roots in Egyptian culture, where it served as a symbol of a man’s belief in his wife’s ability to “care for his house” (big of him) and with the Greeks and Romans, where the ring was given not to a woman but to her father (and I’m sorry about beating the Ladies Against Feminism dead horse once again, but come on …)

From Wedding Ring Origins:

In the second century B. C., the Roman bride was presented with a gold ring. But this she wore only in public. Such a ring was much too precious to wear while tending to household duties; and so the groom gave the bride a second ring – for use in the home – which was usually made of iron and had little knobs in the form of a key. Of course, these “key” rings were weak and could open only those locks requiring very little force to turn, but their significance, in that the wearer had the right to seal up the giver’s possessions, was strong.

So there was the status ring and the trust ring—interesting that …

… the one with more significant symbolism, that of holding the key to a guy’s stuff, was made of iron instead of the more “precious” gold.

Another kind of cool thing is that Christians didn’t have ring components to their marriage ceremonies until 860, and the “Heathenish” nature of those rings, typically engraved with animals or musical instruments, was actually frowned upon by the church.

This changed in the 13th century, when Bishop Durant coined the “symbol of the union of hearts” thing with the mindset causing some problems for the poor, where poverty-stricken Englishmen and Irishmen actually had to rent rings for the big day.

There are some notorious historical wedding ring stories, too. Cool stuff.

The smallest wedding ring was created specially for a two-year-old.

Probably the smallest wedding ring of which we have record was that given the daughter of Henry VIII, Princess Mary, by the proxy of the Dauphin of France, son of King Francis I. The ring was tiny of necessity – not because of the daintiness of the Princess’ hand, but because she was but two years old. It was essential that the Dauphin have a proxy – he had been born but seven months before the bridal ceremonies were celebrated. Thus, amid great pomp and splendor, the Lilliputian golden ring, fitted with a costly diamond, was slipped unto the baby bride’s finger.

And remember Martin Luther, whose wife was featured prominently in the historical paper doll thing?

Another historic ring was that supposedly given to Martin Luther by his wife in commemoration of their marriage. After being severely censored by the Roman Catholics for committing himself to this marriage, Luther is said to have remarked that he married “to please himself, to tease the Pope and to spite the Devil.” The ring, set with a ruby, bears the image of the crucifixion.

And why the third finger of the left hand, of all places? Apparently, a Greek fable claiming that the blood flows directly from that location to the heart is to blame for this one, a myth that has since been disapproved by science.

You’ll love the other theories, too.

It was said that this particular combination was most suitable for finery, as the left hand was used less than the right and the third finger would better protect the ring from injuries, inasmuch as it could not be “extended but in company with some other finger.”

Wow, was nobody left-handed back then? I mean, there are left-handed scissors and notebooks and everything under the sun now … I’m kind of surprised that no southpaw has raised too much of a stink over this.

Still another explanation centers about the idea of the left hand denoting subjection of wife to husband. In the Christian Church service, the priest touched three consecutive fingers, saying, “In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and placed the ring on the last finger touched.

Well, it would give some credence to weddings as a religious event, anyway …

Wikipedia has some other interesting ideas on the finger choice:

* The ratio between index and ring finger is believed to be linked to exposure to the male hormone testosterone in the womb. On average, men tend to have longer ring fingers and women longer index fingers. The higher the testosterone, the greater the length of the ring finger and the more “masculine” the resulting child – whether male or female. The longest ring finger is known as the “Casanova pattern”.
* In a study of stock traders, Cambridge University researchers found that the most successful had a relatively long ring finger. According to these experts, the finger-length ratio was boosted by higher levels of testosterone in the womb during a crucial phase of gestation. Traders with long ring fingers made up to 11 times the earnings of their counterparts, the study found.
* Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley found the difference in the length between women’s ring fingers and index fingers tend to be greater for lesbians than straight women. The same study also found that a greater difference in length of men’s ring fingers and index fingers for gay men with several older brothers as compared to straight men.
* Scientists at the University of Bath found that children who had longer ring fingers are better with numbers-based subjects such as maths and physics, which are traditionally male favourites.
* Canadian researchers from the University of Alberta have found a correlation between length of the ring finger and levels of physical aggression – as would be expected in the most masculinised individuals.
* It is the weakest of the fingers on the hand, as it shares a flexor muscle with the middle and little fingers. It is the only finger that cannot be fully extended by the majority of people, in itself separately.
* It is common to wear an academy signet ring on the opposite ring finger to the wedding ring finger, in western society this is the right ring finger.

I go back, though, to the unquestionable connotation between wedding rings and women as servants to the man she marries. It’s frankly a bit distasteful, in my opinion.

While I’m never planning on getting married again, I’d have to think long and hard about how I’d feel in terms of the rather oppressive history of the wedding ring if the opportunity ever again arises.

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30 thoughts on “Is the Wedding Ring a Symbol of Oppression?

  1. Okay, so maybe historically it’s a sign of subjection, but I really don’t understand the problem with it in modern society, since often husbands wear rings, too, making it a symbol of the union that is shared equally between the two genders. Trust me, I KNOW there are exceptions, but my husband and every single married man in my graduate department (seven of them) wear one.

  2. Like words, symbols evolve over time. This just seems like one of those things that people get up in arms over so that they can avoid real issues in their lives.

    Besides, this article neglects that going back even farther, the ring finger was considered the heart finger with energy coming through the passive left side and leaving the body on the assertive right side. The ring on the left finger symbolized harnessing that energy, turning it into something positive, and releasing it back into the world.

    Like I said, things evolve.

  3. Every major aspect of weddings today is outdated frippery with patriarchal roots. The white wedding dress symbolizing the virginity of the bride, the handing off of the bride from her father to her husband, the tossing of the bouquet (because of course every other maiden at the wedding is just dying to be married), the best man whose purpose is to keep a kidnapped bride’s family from preventing the wedding and forced consummation, the honeymoon (to ensure that the captures bride would already be pregnant by the time her family found her), the “something blue” which is meant to represent the purity of the bride, the veil for arranged marriages in which the bride and groom did not meet before the wedding and hid the bride’s face so that the groom wouldn’t see her and refuse to marry her if he didn’t find her attractive.

    Geez, aren’t weddings ROMANTIC?

    • Hm. I just had a wonderfully romantic wedding that included only one of those ‘traditions’. Any guesses which? :)
      To me, a wedding is simply a matter of gathering whatever people matter to the couple, publicly declaring their intentions towards each other in the presence of those people. All the rest is extraneous.

      We didn’t do any traditional things that didn’t have meaning for us. It was simple, fun, and deep.

      I used many of those examples when asked by family members why we weren’t doing something or other. To anyone else, I would say that weddings don’t mean any one thing in particular. You take what you want, and make it matter.
      It doesn’t have to be oppressive and difficult.

      • Gosh, I have to narrow it down to one…my guesses are either a honeymoon or a best man. I’m going to say……best man?

      • ohhh. I fail a bit. Perhaps we did two in total, since there were two halves. Does a best man count if he is officially designated as such but has no role (not even standing at front)? Does a honeymoon count if it’s not immediately following the wedding?
        I was thinking of neither of the half-theres.
        Anyways, I don’t think it changes my point about making it work for you.

        • Wheey congratulations! And I totally thought of the honeymoon, I’m more looking forward to it than to my wedding! (The day I get married).

  4. I still plan on having a wedding ring. One tiny little piece of gold isn’t going to make me feel oppressed in the slightest.

  5. I have bigger and better things to ponder than whether or not my wedding ring sends out the message that I am oppressed.

  6. This is the kind of feminism I take issue with.

    This is what happens when people seek out facets of society to be offended by. Until you had mentioned that wedding rings had a different past meaning, I hadn’t even thought of it. To me, it has always been and always will be a symbol of connection to my spouse.

    What you’re doing in this article is like claiming that high heeled shoes are intentionally meant to oppress women because it’s similar to foot binding, which was used in the past to do so. You’re severely lacking in perspective.

  7. I agree with a lot of the other commenters… I don’t really care what the history of the wedding ring is, only what it means now. Like Manda said, this is the annoying type of feminism. It’s like you’re just trying to find something to be offended by.

    Nowadays, men wear wedding rings as well, and it’s a way of showing the world that you are bound to another person…not as a slave or servant, but as a partner. I’m fairly certain nobody will see my wedding ring and think that I’m oppressed…just happily married.

  8. Oh wow, get over it. If you’re going to try and find oppressive roots in everything, you’re going to be a very unhappy person. The meanings and tones of everything change over time. For being such a modern feminist, you certainly seem stuck in the stone-age on this issue.

    I’m not married, but I certainly DO plan on wearing a wedding ring and changing my last name. Not because I’m oppressed, but because I know I have a choice, and I CHOOSE to to do it. Isn’t that what feminism was supposed to be about?

  9. A wedding ring is not a symbol of oppression. It is a symbol of taken-ness and belonging.
    My wedding ring says “I belong to someone else. We can be friends.” My husband’s wedding ring says the same thing. I feel very equal and unoppressed.

  10. “I go back, though, to the unquestionable connotation between wedding rings and women as servants to the man she marries. It’s frankly a bit distasteful, in my opinion.”
    Why is this an issue when in today’s society, the man also wears a ring connecting him as a servant to the woman he marries? To me, it signifies that you are both declaring your intention to work for each other.

    It’s the unequal engagement ring that people should be wondering about. I think those are archaic and unequal, yet vastly many women who otherwise claim equality and feminism hold tight to their need for a one-sided gift of a sparkly diamond…

    • On that note, my daughter is about to propose to her boyfriend. She had her best friend make him a ring out of silver chain mail.

      • awesome!

        I told my thence-boyfriend that I needed no fancy proposal – a discussion and agreement did it for me, and that I definitely didn’t need no diamond. If he really felt he wanted to give me an engagement gift, I told him I could really use an ice axe. :)

      • Haha, that’s fantastic. I’ve talked about it to my boyfriend and asked him if he would ever want an engagement ring, and he said no. I would like one, so I suppose it’s just a personal preference.

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  12. Rings are a symbol of ownership. I will never wear or buy one. However, she’s free to wear whatever she chooses.

    • The whole point is the symbolic ‘ownership’ of each other. As long as you’re not requiring of her what you won’t do yourself, that’s fine, but if you don’t want marriage, better to just be up front about that.

      • “Owning” another human is dehumanizing. Being married, having a partner, is not. It can be liberating.

        The ring ownership concept opens the door for so much abuse, controlling, and possessiveness, as we have all seen. “You are mine. You can’t go there. You can’t do that. Where were/are you? Don’t ever let me catch you talking to him/her again.” Once you are owned by someone they have the right to dictate where you go, what you do, when, how, and with whom. None of that is cool.

        And the whole engagement ring thing is even worse. It’s not only a symbol of ownership, it’s an unequal one, where the man is expected to shell out thousands but she shells out little or nothing.

        What’s even worse are marriage tattoos that people get. That’s like branding a cow.

        • I feel like those people who get marriage tattoos would disagree with your characterization of them as branded cows. I myself wouldn’t get one, but I also don’t find myself compelled to insult those who do. *Kind* of makes you sound like a dick.

          • I said it’s “like” what’s done to cows, not that they are cows. It’s not an insult; it’s a fact that cows are tattooed to show that they are owned.

            Regarding your last comment, people who have no logical argument often to resort to calling others “dicks” or other names, which only exposes their ignorance.

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